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The Vietnamese Army Maintains An Armada Of Tanks

December 10, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

With slow modernization the deliberate pace for military procurement among ASEAN states, taking measure of their hard power is often pointless. Throughout the regional bloc, in fact, are a surplus of aging platforms kept functional by modest budgets. Vietnam is no exception and prioritizes its economic development over military spending. But while its neighbors trim and scrimp Hanoi takes a specific approach where essential technologies are imported while a collection of state-owned enterprises supply the military, whose numbers rank it the largest in ASEAN. According to IISS’ The Military Balance the army alone stands at 420,000-strong.

And its arsenal is overflowing with tanks and artillery.

It’s been confirmed that Russia delivered a batch of T-90S tanks to the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) earlier this year. But there’s no indication Hanoi and Moscow have plans to launch a joint venture for assembling the next batch of tanks locally or even modernizing the army’s existing stocks. Wherever the new T-90S’ are assigned they’ll be joining an enormous fleet of older T-series tanks. Since the end of the Cold War the VPA have kept anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 tracked fighting vehicles in working order. The bulk of these are Chinese and Soviet Type 59/T-55 medium tanks.

Long deemed obsolescent, the T-55 (and its Chinese derivatives) were once formidable adversaries for their 100 mm rifled main armament. Even with their modest dimensions T-55’s had a limited night fighting ability and NBC protection for irradiated or toxic environments. T-55’s are renowned for their sturdiness and have seen more combat than any other post-World War 2 tank despite a questionable combat record. To this day significant fleets of T-55’s are kept by several armies. The VPA’s own stocks of Type 59/T-55 tanks are in working order since their storage sites and maintenance is publicized by Vietnamese media. Besides an estimated 1,200 Type 59/T-55 tanks in various stages of serviceability, the VPA has several hundred PT-76 amphibious light tanks and just as many Chinese-made Type 62 and Type 63 light tanks. The status of Vietnam’s alleged T-62 tanks is ambiguous.

Vietnam’s ground force is also one of the few remaining militaries that operate Soviet armor from the mid-20th century. An undisclosed number of T-34/85 tanks and ASU-85 airborne assault guns are in working order. Hundreds of tanks seized from the long defunct ARVN–mainly M47 and M48 Pattons–are no longer counted. Having so much armor looks absurd in a time when direct energy weapons and tools for launching and stopping drone swarms are considered vital for militaries everywhere. Yet if a future conflict embroils Vietnam and it must protect its borders, which is what happened during the 1979 war against China, having large stores of equipment ready is an advantage.

What Vietnam’s army and defense ministry plans to do with its old tanks is guesswork. But working Type 59’s and T-55’s have many upgrades available to them. Depending on whether Russia is involved or not, it’s possible to improve a T-55’s firepower to either a 105 mm or a smoothbore 125 mm gun with an autoloader. China, by the way, is able to install either armament options on its own antiquated tanks. A full modernization of a T-55 must involve a digital fire control system for the crew; layers of composite and reactive armor for the hull and turret; perhaps a new engine; a multitude of smaller improvements are applicable. One alternative for an old T-55 is converting it to another role, such as a troop carrier or a mobile artillery piece. Either modification needs the turret to be removed and the crewspace reconfigured.

Contrary to assumptions about Southeast Asia’s geographical spread armored warfare does have a long tradition. From World War 2 onward armor had decisive roles in many conflicts and saw widespread use throughout Vietnam’s long struggle for independence and unification. ASEAN militaries understand the value of heavy armor and since the 1990s acquiring main battle tanks was prioritized by Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand because MBTs are deemed essential for ground combat. Even a small landlocked country like Laos upgraded its army with T-72B tanks bought from Russia while a nearby non-ASEAN member, the island nation Taiwan, sees current-generation MBTs as a cost-effective deterrent versus an invasion force.

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